Fill the Gap: Ontario Should Insure Injured Migrant Workers

Melanie Spence, Nanky Rai, Nikki Bozinoff, Abeer Majeed, Miriam Garfinkle, James Deutsch
Tuesday. April 8, 2014

As frontline healthcare providers in Ontario, we often witness the impact of decisions made in the corridors of power on people’s health and well-being. We witness how policy shifts may suddenly disrupt the lives of our patients, with severe consequences. Unfortunately, we see this once again with the Ontario Division Court decision last week to strip OHIP coverage for injured migrant workers.

Kenroy Williams and Denville Clarke are migrant farm workers from Jamaica employed in Canada under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP). On Aug. 9, 2012, Kenroy and Denville were being driven to work in their employer’s van with seven others when the vehicle had a terrible crash. One worker was killed and Kenroy and Denville, along with other passengers, sustained serious injuries that have required ongoing medical care.

The Health Services Appeals and Review Board ruled twice last year that sick or injured migrant workers should have access to ongoing medical care to facilitate recovery, regardless of their work permit status. It’s a decision that we, as healthcare providers, applauded. The Ontario government has shamefully proceeded to appeal both rulings, leading to the Division Court decision last week that will effectively revoke OHIP coverage for Kenroy and Denville, who continue to require access to medical services for their treatment and recovery.

We want to sound the alarm over the unjust federal and provincial immigration and health policies that are based on the exploitation of human labour and xenophobia.

Migrants increasingly enter Canada to work under temporary foreign worker programs through which they are denied equitable access to services while still being required to pay taxes. The number of people being allowed access to permanent residency continues to be less than those entering under temporary work permits.

Ontario and Canada have been directly profiting from the labour and contributions of migrant farm workers on whose backs the agricultural economy has been growing. Kenroy and Denville arrived to work in Ontario under the federally administered SAWP.

It is a program that is rife with exploitation. Employees live in crowded housing accommodation with poor sanitation. They work long hours for minimal wages and are exposed daily to occupational hazards such as pesticides and other chemicals with substandard safety mechanisms. They are not allowed to unionize.

If employees advocate for safer work, transportation or living conditions, they are often threatened with being deported by employers to whom their contracts are tied. Migrant farm workers have died in Ontario from poor workplace safety conditions.

Many employers view migrant workers as a disposable pool of labour that is easily replaced. In fact, after surviving their accident, Kenroy and Denville’s employer shockingly also attempted to send both back to Jamaica rather than help them access the urgent medical care they needed. Family members, a community legal clinic, and activists with grassroots community organizations such as Justicia for Migrant Workers intervened to help them remain in Canada, and access healthcare services.

In last week’s extremely disappointing Division Court decision, the judges did however acknowledge the gaps in access to healthcare coverage for injured and sick migrant workers and urged the federal and provincial governments to arrive at an agreement to fill in that gap.

As healthcare providers, we strongly urge the Ontario government to take the right step and immediately provide OHIP coverage to Kenroy and Denville and others in a similar situation. Furthermore, if migrant farm workers are being injured at work, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board should give these workers the choice and means to remain in Ontario and access all the necessary healthcare services to recover.

It is time that we see a fundamental shift in the policies of the provincial and federal governments to those that value first and foremost people and life. We call for changes that reaffirm the dignity and rights entitled to all people. Every person has a right to access healthcare when in need. As such we demand an end to and complete reversal of current policies that cut services, deny access to care, and block avenues to gain full immigration status.

Melanie Spence is a nursing student at the University of Toronto. Nanky Rai is a medical student at the University of Toronto. Dr. Nikki Bozinoff is a family medicine resident. Dr. Abeer Majeed is a family physician. Dr. Miriam Garfinkle is a family physician. Dr. James Deutsch works in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto.

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